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Money and politics

As the fall election closes in, City Council candidates are gearing up for their campaigns, soliciting contributions, putting out yard signs and placing the advertisements needed to get recognized.

They each want the same thing: name recognition and, ultimately, votes.

So far this year, two candidates have each received more than $10,000 for their campaigns, a trend begun over the past few Council elections.

This year, Maureen Judge, who is running in the jam-packed race for Position 3, has named nearly $11,000 in contributions. Councilmember Steve Litzow, who is running unopposed in Position 1, has raised the most campaign funds, reporting $17,500 in contributions.

The four candidates for Pos. 3 to replace Councilman Sven Goldmanis who is not seeking re-election, have to hurry to campaign for the Aug. 21 primary election. Along with Judge, Bob Bersos, Jon Friedman and Mike Cero are running for the open slot. Only two of the four will go on the ballot in the General Election in November.

Friedman was the first candidate to place yard signs out on the Island. He also said he has filed his contributions but the public disclosure commission’s Web site did not have updated totals. He said he filed for full reporting and has raised about $5,000 so far. He intends to run a grassroots campaign, estimating the total cost of the campaign around $10,000. He said he would raise whatever is needed to win but would rather gain support through doorbelling, placing out yard signs, advertising in the paper and getting community endorsements from local coaches, teachers and community activists.

His opponent Bersos is taking a similar approach, however he does not intend to raise any more than $600 from contributors for the primary election taking place Aug. 21. Bersos also will not collect more than $3,500, and has filed for mini-reporting. He said he plans to campaign to get to know as many people as possible because he doesn’t like yard signs or advertisements.

Like Bersos, some candidates — both current and past — have approached campaign financing as a low-budget affair. Others have raised large sums of contributions to help get their names out there and win the election. Some candidates spend as much as $10,000 on a campaign, while others sometimes spend less than $3,000.

In the last election, the winners were not always the biggest spenders. Mike Grady defeated Brenda Finkenbinder but raised and spent $8,000 less, not even half of his opponent’s totals. Jim Pearman also defeated his challenger, Bob Baker, in 2005. Pearman only spent $2,430 compared to Baker’s $10,975.

On the other hand, Dan Grausz and his challenger, Lisa Belden-O’Meara spent about the same amount of money on their campaigns. Grausz spent $12,219.93 in his successful bid for re-election and his opponent was right under that at $11,568.67.

Susan Blake, a former councilmember, who lost to Litzow in 2003, said she declined to raise big funds, and it surely cost her the election. That year, seeking her third term, she collected about $2,300, which she said was a direct reaction to the $30,000 plus raised by Litzow.

“That seemed absurd to me,” Blake said last week. “It was against my principles. I’ve always thought of this as a volunteer endeavor. I was absolutely out-spent $30 to $1. He won by 100 or so votes — votes that were heavily paid for. Money does make a difference. But money didn’t get me there and it didn’t keep me there.”

Deputy Mayor Pearman, however, doesn’t think money can buy votes on Mercer Island, though he did say there may have been a few exceptions in the past.

“My read on the deal is it’s about how long you’ve lived on the Island and who you know,” Pearman said. “A lot of information about candidates on Mercer Island is done by word of mouth. I still don’t think you can buy a vote on Mercer Island. Most of it is just doorbelling. The people just want to meet you. And that costs time.”

However, in the last three elections candidates have been raising more and more money as a whole. So far this year, the eight candidates have reported raising $37,921 total.

In 2005, the contributions for six candidates reached $64,403.85 while they spent a total of $52,623.88. On average, each candidate earned and spent about $10,000.

With six candidates running in 2003, the total amount of campaign finances was less than it was in 2005, with $41,131.72 of contributions reported. Councilmember Steve Litzow raised 84 percent of those contributions, collecting $32,800. His opponent, the incumbent Blake, only spent about $2,300. El Jahncke raised the second-highest amount that year, collecting $4,866.72. Jahncke’s opponent, Bob Gelb, spent $1,290.19. Councilmember Sven Goldmanis, who ran unopposed, only filed spending $18.

In 2001, four candidates collectively raised $28,821.94 from contributions, roughly $7,000 per individual.

While the cost of getting recognized may be going up, Councilmember El Jahncke said it’s all that matters in the end.

“The reality of it is that if you took a survey of the Island, you wouldn’t get more than 10 percent that could name a city councilman. Name recognition is what the campaign is all about, not issues.”

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